In a glass case on the top floor of the Museum of Dartmoor Life is a small wooden collecting box with a sad little picture stuck to it. On the top, around the money slot, it says: ‘Penny Box, please put one penny a week in this box and a small additional offering on Festivals and Holidays. Please help The Waifs and Strays.’

On the side it explains its objective as: ‘To rescue little children who are destitute, ill treated or in mortal danger.’

The painting shows two homeless, neglected, abandoned and starving children, an all-too-common sight in the late 1800’s. Edward and Robert de Montjoie Rudolf were running a Sunday school in Lambeth in 1871 aged just 19 and 15 years old. Two of the children, who regularly attended their classes, stopped coming and the brothers later found them living on the streets, starving. Their Mother had too many children and couldn’t afford to feed the eldest two. The Rudolf brothers tried to find a home for these children but all wanted payment. It was then that Edward saw a need for free homes for destitute children where they could receive the teachings of the Church of England.

Ten years later, after a lot of letter writing and fundraising, ‘The Waifs and Strays Society’ was founded by Edward Rudolf and by August of 1881 he had persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to become President. The society rented its first house the following December and on the 14th February 1882 the first children moved in to receive their care.

After nine years there were 35 homes and the society had started organising foster homes for some children in ‘country cottages’ according to our box.

In 1893 the official name was changed to ‘Church of England Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays.’ Why have a short catchy name when you can have a long complicated one!

By 1905 there were 93 homes and 3,410 children in the society’s care. I believe that our box dates to slightly later, about 1910, as the information on the side panels suggests they now have 109 homes including 2 in Canada and are caring for 4,400 children. I believe many people had one of these boxes at home, handed out by their local C of E church, but today it is quite a rarity, especially because of the flimsiness of the paper coverings.

In 1982 it was renamed ‘The Children’s Society’ and today they no longer run homes, but work with local communities, local authorities and the Youth Justice sector.